Recreating Racism: Race and Discrimination in Cuba’s “Special Period”*

de la Fuente

“Race,” an Afro-Cuban-American businessman wrote in the Miami press not long ago, “is at the heart of Cuba’s crisis.” Although statements like this are not unheard-of, most analyses of the Cuban transition or the so-called “special period” treat the country as if it were a racially-homogenous entity. This is not particularly surprising. A candid discussion of “race” is generally unwelcome among Cubans, particularly among white Cubans, who frequently claim that racism has never been a problem in the island and that its open discussion is not convenient and will only serve the divisionist purposes of the enemy, however defined. In addition to this patriotic silence "with deep roots in Cuban national discourse" studies about current social problems in the island face a total inadequacy of sources. If they exist at all, these sources are seldom published or accessible to researchers. The overwhelming literature about the transition concentrates, as a result, on economic and political problems. The social dimension remains less explored.

Is race truly central to the current crisis and, if so, what does that mean precisely? Does it mean that a collapse of the current government and social order will lead to racial confrontation¾even to racial warfare analogous to the ethnically-defined conflicts that have plagued the transitions in Eastern Europe? Is it possible to detect in Cuba some sort of correlation between racial identities and political preferences? In other words, do white and non-white Cubans sustain conflicting views of how the future Cuba should be? These are some of the questions addressed and discussed in this paper, within the limitations imposed by the dearth of reliable data. This contribution merely seeks to review some of the prevalent ideas about the subject, summarize the information available, and assess the impact of the current crisis on race relations in the island. In no sense does the paper attempt to predict future events or how they will affect the racial groups that comprise its population.

Those who consider race to be at the core of the Cuban crisis usually justify their position by claiming that Afro-Cubans represent a group that provides unconditional political support to the government. Implicit in this construct is the belief that white Cubans aim for change, whereas blacks and mulattos do not. As a prominent journalist from The Washington Post puts it, “Black Cubans prefer Castro to US rhetoric.” A Western diplomat based in Havana agrees; the situation will not change, he asserts, unless “the blacks start throwing rocks.” Afro-Cubans are thus supposed to be Fidel Castro’s “secret weapon,” a group whose loyalty is crucial for the survival of the current regime. Their support, in turn, is explained as a function of two factors: the opportunities and benefits that the revolution “gave” them, and the fear that a collapse of the revolution will imply the restoration of racism and racial discrimination, which is frequently tied to the return of the white exile community. “That’s why there is paralysis in Cuba,” a State Department analyst explains. “When Cubans look at white, right-wing Miami, they are afraid.”

Afraid Cubans may be, but these opinions rest on a number of assumptions which remain, for the most part, unverified. Not only are blacks supposed to be among the main beneficiaries of socialism, but whatever opportunities were created under the revolution are supposed to be meaningful today, four decades after its triumph and under the conditions of the “special period.” Furthermore, racism and discrimination are supposed to be a future possibility, not a current reality. It is also taken for granted that the Cuban-American community is racist, that blacks in the island fully accept this notion, and that they are politically paralyzed as a result. The question we must ask, then, is: does the available evidence support these assumptions?

Race and equality: the 1980s

Only in part. It is possible, for instance, to validate empirically the widespread opinion "contested only by some voices within the Cuban-American community and a handful of black militants" that Afro-Cubans benefited under the 1959 revolution. It is well known that the revolutionary government never targeted blacks in its social policies, but its program of structural transformations, aimed at improving the lot of the “humildes” or “clases populares,” created opportunities for social mobility that were readily seized by the black population. The emigration of vast sectors of the white middle- and upper-classes facilitated this process, a point that Carlos Moore has emphasized. The emigration of the managerial class created an occupational vacuum that was filled by population sectors which had been traditionally under-represented in white-collar employment and the higher echelons of the occupational structure. Mobility, in other words, was to be achieved without the social tensions which are frequently associated with a process of competition for scarce resources and lucrative employment. Through the 1970s, the need for professionals, technicians, and skilled workers was greater than their availability. Education was expanded, lifting some of the barriers that had limited social ascent in pre-revolutionary Cuba.

Furthermore, the very nature of this class-based program of social transformation tended to minimize racial tensions and the possibility of racial conflict. The visibility and social relevance of race were further eroded in public discourse through an interpretation of nationhood and Cubanness which, while appropriating Martí, claimed that among “real” Cubans there were neither blacks nor whites, only Cubans. Racism was linked to a past that was being fully transformed, and to social groups that were being destroyed. Racial discrimination was identified with imperialism, capitalism, and the white elites, enemies of the revolution and representatives of US interests. Manifestations of racism became socially unacceptable: they were both anti-national and counter-revolutionary. Race itself disappeared from public discourse and was relegated to the safer areas of culture or as a political issue in the international arena. Revolutionary Cuba was envisioned as a raceless society, one in which the color of the skin would have no influence on individual life chances.

This was not only, as some unsympathetic observers claim, a rhetorical manipulation. For the most part, the social policies of the revolutionary government were color-blind and opened significant opportunities for all sectors of the population, regardless of race. In fact, the results of this process of social transformation can be only described as impressive. By the early 1980s Cuban society had made remarkable progress in the reduction of racial inequality in a number of crucial areas, including education, indicators of health care, and the occupational structure. Racial inequality persisted in some areas, but the trend was unequivocally towards equality.

The revolution’s impact on racial equality and the singularity of the Cuban case can be understood better in comparative perspective (another possibility is to use pre-revolutionary figures as a reference, but this is not always possible). Using census figures, I have estimated a number of indicators that can be compared with similar results in Brazil and the United States¾thus putting the Cuban figures in a wider context. For instance, by 1981 life expectancy in Cuba was not only close to that of developed countries in absolute numbers, but this figure was actually as meaningful for the black and mulatto residents in the island as it was for whites. Although a white/non-white gap of one year still existed, it was significantly lower than in Brazil (6.7 years) or the United States (6.3. years). Life expectancy reflects broad social conditions, including access to nutrition, health care, maternal care, and education, thus the significance of these differences.

This is true for educational achievement as well. Illiteracy was basically eliminated in the island in the early 1960s, but by 1981 inequality in education had disappeared all the way up to the university level. The proportion of blacks and mulattos who had graduated from high school was in fact higher than the proportion of whites, an indication that blacks had made good use of the opportunities created by the revolutionary government in this area. Conversely, in the United States (at the college level) and Brazil, in both high school and college graduation, large differences according to race remained.

The expansion and socialization of education eventually influenced the racial composition of the occupational structure. As Table 2 shows, the index of dissimilarity (a summary measure of inequality) in the Cuban labor market was in the early 1980s three to four times lower than in the US or Brazil. The proportion of blacks and mulattos employed in the professions (one-fifth of the labor force) was virtually identical to whites’ in the island, whereas in Brazil it was three times lower. Thirty-one percent of workers employed in the Cuban medical sector were blacks and mulattos, a proportion only slightly lower than their share of the population (34 percent, according to the 1981 census). But the distribution of the racial groups in the different occupations was still somehow unequal. Although blacks and mulattos were not greatly over-represented in blue-collar jobs (35 percent), their proportion in some sectors, such as construction, was larger than their population share (41 percent). Likewise, whereas 13 percent of whites worked in managerial positions, the proportion of blacks (7 percent) and mulattos (9 percent) was lower. Even taking these qualifications into account, however, it is safe to state that the incidence of race in the Cuban labor market was limited, particularly in the case of the mulattos. Furthermore, since these figures are not age-specific, at least part of the remaining differences could be attributed to historical factors and past discrimination.

Even in the area of black representation in leadership positions -- an area in which the Cuban government has been frequently criticized -- inequality had decreased significantly. According to a census conducted in 1986, 27 percent of management positions in the government at the national level were occupied by blacks and mulattos, a percentage only slightly lower than their proportion in the total population. A similar representation was to be found at the provincial and municipal levels (see Table 3). This proportion represented an improvement compared to 1981, probably due in part to the directive, issued by Fidel Castro and the Third Congress of the Communist Party, that the representation of blacks, women, and youth should be increased in positions of command within the party and the government. But even in 1981 the proportion of blacks and mulattos among those classified as “dirigentes” (people in leadership positions of various kinds) was not negligible (24 percent).

The favorable impact of the Cuban revolution on race relations in the country is acknowledged by most visitors and residents in the island alike. “I'm black, I'm 51 years old and I could go to school for free,” a black female dental hygienist living in Havana declared in 1993; “my niece is very bright. She goes to a special school where the intellectual level is very high. But she is black, and she is the daughter of a worker...” An African-American scholar who visited the island the same year concurred: “Cuba, while not a racial Utopia, is as close to a racial democracy as we have on this earth,” he asserted. These perceptions are not exceptional. A survey conducted in 1994 by CID-Gallup, a Costa Rican firm associated with The Gallup Organization, found that 90 percent of Cubans believe that skin color does not significantly affect opportunities, nor the way people are treated; 94 percent "believe that persons of color have the same access as whites to a good education" and a similar proportion agreed that they have equal opportunities to get “a good job” (90%) or “a position in society” (91%). In a survey conducted by a research team of the Centro de Antropología de Cuba led by Juan A. Alvarado in three Havana neighborhoods in 1995, 81 percent of white and 73 percent of black and mulatto respondents agreed that significant progress had been made in the area of racial discrimination under the revolution. A parallel study conducted in Santa Clara by sociologist Daniela Hernández the same year offered similar results: 94 percent of whites and 83 percent of blacks agreed with the same proposition.

Given the level of equality and effective racial integration that Cuban society had achieved by the mid-1980s, it is reasonable to expect that the crisis which followed would not have racially-specific effects. In a truly color-blind environment, the relatively equal distribution of whites and non-whites in the socioeconomic structure should have guaranteed an equally color-blind impact of market forces. Individuals would be affected according to their position in society and employment, regardless of race. Yet, there is consensus that the effects of the so-called special period have not been evenly distributed among the racial groups.

The Special Period

Data to analyze this process are far from satisfactory, but some important trends can be discerned. To begin with, a careful analysis of Cuban society in the 1980s reveals that, despite the improvements mentioned above, some structural conditions did suggest the possibility that a crisis would unequally affect people according to the color of their skin. Racial inequality had been greatly reduced in areas in which government performance had been successful: health care, education, and employment. But in areas of limited success, racial inequality remained much wider.

For instance, despite efforts to the contrary, a strong correlation between race, the regional distribution of the population, and the quality of the housing stock persisted through the 1980s. A traditional geography of race and poverty had not been dismantled, not the least because of the government failure to provide adequate housing to all the population. No neighborhood was racially exclusive--this was true, for the most part, in pre-revolutionary Cuba also--but in the most dilapidated areas of the big cities the proportion of blacks and mulattos was greater than that of whites. In Havana, the municipalities of Habana Vieja and Centro Habana exemplify well the persistence of these residential patterns. Blacks and mulattos represented 36 percent of the city’s population in 1981, but they amounted to 44 and 47 percent of the residents in the aforementioned municipalities. Whereas 13 percent of the residents in the city lived in tenement houses, in Habana Vieja and Centro Habana their proportion was three to four times higher. Only 14 percent of the city’s population lived in these municipalities, yet they contained 47 percent of the houses with structural damages in the whole city. The proportion of houses in which sanitary services were collectively used was also three to four times higher in Habana Vieja (36 percent) and Centro Habana (24 percent) than in Havana as a whole (9 percent). Households in these municipalities also ranked consistently lower than the provincial average in the availability of appliances.

These residential areas, characterized by high densities of non-white population and a physically deteriorated environment, are frequently deemed to be also dangerous and with high rates of criminal activities. There is a geography of crime which remains tied to race and poverty. Thirty-one percent of the areas officially classified by the Policía Nacional Revolucionaria (PNR, National Revolutionary Police) to be “criminal centers” (focos delictivos) in Havana (1987), were located in the three municipalities with the highest proportions of blacks and mulattos in the city: Habana Vieja, Centro Habana, and Marianao (which comprised only, however, 20 percent of the city’s total population). These “focos” included some shanty towns, such as “El Palo,” “Isla de Simba,” “Las Yaguas” and “Isla del Polvo” in Marianao, or tenement houses such as “Mercaderes 111” in Habana Vieja and “Romeo y Julieta” in Centro Habana.

The persistence of racial inequality in the criminal system and the association between race and crime remained obvious in other ways. According to a MININT (Ministerio del Interior) report, the yearly average number of criminal acts between the periods of 1976-1980 and 1981-1985 increased nationally by 11 percent. The growth in some of the provinces with a large black and mulatto population was significantly higher: 57 percent in Granma, 29 percent in Santiago de Cuba, and 50 percent in Guantanamo. In the same period, the yearly national average of murders increased by 46 percent, from 216 in the 1976-1980 five-year period to 315 in 1981-1985. The increase in three provinces mentioned above amounted to 70 percent.

Impressionistic reports assert also that blacks and mulattos are over-represented in the prison population. According to an organization of political prisoners in the Combinado del Este prison, in the late 1980s eight out of every ten prisoners were black. This, they concluded, destroyed “the myth proclaimed by the Cuban revolution that it has established racial equality.” A U.N. Commission which visited two Cuban prisons in 1988 reported that “a large number of prisoners were black,” a reality that was acknowledged by the Vice-President of the Council of State who accompanied the visitors. The functionary explained that the number of blacks in prison was disproportionate in relation to their population share because, despite “the substantial achievements of the Revolution,” blacks were still in a majority in the poorest strata of society. This, he claimed, “is by no means the expression of a policy of racial discrimination, but a left-over from the past.”

Whether these racial differences can be explained as “left-overs” is of course open to question, but it seems safe to state that, just as in pre-revolutionary Cuba, blacks’ delinquency rates remained higher than those of whites through the 1980s. A provision contained in the penal code which can be particularly telling about racialized perceptions of crime is that of “peligrosidad social” (social dangerousness). The history of this criminal provision is itself revealing. It appeared in the Cuban criminal code of 1936--under the influence of contemporaneous Italian criminal law--to provide for the repression of individuals with “a certain unhealthy, congenital or acquired predisposition” to commit crimes. The 1979 Penal Code changed somehow the legal definition of dangerousness, but still allowed for the repression (including reeducation through internment) of individuals with “a special proclivity” to commit crimes. In other words, a person whose conduct was deemed to be “manifestly against the norms of socialist morality” could be deprived of freedom even without committing acts defined as crimes in the law. Included among these pre-criminal behaviors were habitual drunkness, vagrancy, drug addiction, and other forms of “antisocial conduct.”

Such a lax, broad definition of antisocial behavior created enough room for racialized notions of proper conduct to be enforced more freely than under the specific provisions of the penal code. Data to assess the racially-differentiated impact of the “social dangerousness” provision are scant, but the results of a study commissioned by the Attorney General of Cuba in 1987 are indeed revealing. Out of a total of 643 cases of peligrosidad submitted to the courts in Havana city between May and December 1986, 345 were black subjects and 120 were mulattos. Non-whites represented a staggering 78 percent of all the individuals considered to be socially dangerous. This proportion was more than double their share in the total population. Whereas there were 5,430 white adults living in the city for each white person facing charges of social dangerousness, the ratio among blacks (excluding mulattos) was one in 713. Blacks (again, excluding mulattos) were declared to be socially dangerous 7.6 times more often than whites, and 3.4 times more often than mulattos. Social dangerousness was essentially used to typify the conduct of blacks, particularly of young ones. Eighty-four percent of the socially-dangerous subjects were between the ages of 16 and 30.

Despite its inadequacies, the information reviewed here provides a picture about the role of race in 1980s Cuban society which is more complex, contradictory, and nuanced than frequently assumed. The structural changes implemented by the revolutionary government did benefit large sectors of the black population, but such gains were concentrated in areas in which the revolution had been particularly successful and which had received generous government spending. Conversely, the government’s failure to meet housing demands allowed for the survival and reproduction of traditional residential patterns which combined race with poverty and marginalization. This also limited the impact of the revolution’s educational program, high rates of schooling notwithstanding. The chances for young blacks to grow up in these poorer areas remained significantly greater than for whites. Likewise, the chances for young blacks to be socialized in what Cuban criminologists referred to as the criminal micro-environment were also significantly larger. In summary, the achievement of racial equality was largely dependent on government performance.

But capacity to perform is, precisely, what the Cuban government has lacked under the special period. The economic collapse which followed the “rectification period” (1986-1990) and the disappearance of its former commercial and political partners in East Europe, severely limited the capacity of the state to distribute goods and services to the population. According to several estimates, between 1989 and 1993 the gross domestic product declined by as much as 40 percent. The Cuban government was forced to introduce a number of market oriented measures, including foreign investment, to foster productivity and stimulate Cuba's stagnant economy. Measures like the legalization of dollars, self-employment, foreign investment, and "free" agricultural markets carry with them, as Cuban authorities themselves recognize, a heavy social cost: they unavoidably provoke increasing inequality and resentment in a population which is used to living in a highly egalitarian social setting. As Carlos Lage, vice president of the Cuban Council of State, remarked, “This will create differences among people, greater than what we have now and greater than we are used to having since the revolution... the inequality or privilege that can be created are realities we must allow.”

These economic changes affect large sectors of the population, regardless of race, education, and other socially-relevant variables. As Cubans in the island themselves recognize, the origins and nature of the crisis are not racially-defined. “The issue isn’t race,” a black scientist asserted in 1993 referring to the crisis. A black female physician agreed: “Here there are not black and white differences. We are all living through the special period.” A similar perception was prevalent among respondents to a survey conducted in Havana and Santiago de Cuba in 1994. Although a higher percentage of blacks (22 percent) than whites (7 percent), considered the crisis to have racially-differentiated effects, the dominant view was that it affected blacks and whites equally.

Yet some of the reforms introduced by the government affect different social groups dissimilarly and do have racially-differentiated effects. The most obvious example is that of the legalization of dollars, which has tended to fragment Cuban society along the lines of those who have access to dollars and those who do not. For the most part, Cubans receive hard currency from two main sources: family remittances and through links to the Cuban dollar economy, represented mainly by tourism and by the joint ventures and foreign companies that have opened businesses in the island. Workers in some productive sectors have also received dollar payments in the last few years, but these amounts are small compared to what can be obtained in tourism jobs or through family remittances (for instance, workers in the bio-medical research sector have received $70 once or twice a year). Some artists, artisans, writers, and scholars also obtain dollars through their work.

Family remittances are probably the most important source of hard currency for ordinary Cubans. Economic officials in the island estimate that annual remittances amount to 600 to 800 million dollars. Given the racial composition of the Cuban diaspora, it is reasonable to assume that blacks’ access to these funds is rather limited. According to the 1990 US census, 83.5 percent of Cuban immigrants living in the US identify themselves as whites. Assuming that dollar remittances are evenly distributed among white and non-white exiles and that they stay, roughly, within the same racial group of the sender, then about 680 out of the 800 million dollars that enter the island every year would end up in white hands. What this means is that percapita remittances to the island would amount to about $85 per year among whites. The comparable figure for non-whites would be less than half this amount.

Given their limited participation in the remittances, blacks’ opportunities to participate in the dollar economy are basically reduced to the competitive tourist sector. The desirability and attractiveness of tourist jobs is such that a large number of professionals have abandoned their occupations to seek employment in this sector, the most dynamic and lucrative in the Cuban economy. Consequently, competition for these jobs has escalated.

Tourism is a sector in which blacks should have had privileged access, for in the early 1980s they comprised a significant proportion of the labor force employed in hotels, restaurants, and similar services. Thirty-eight percent of those employed in “services” were, according to the 1981 census, blacks or mulattos--a percentage slightly above their population share. Yet there is widespread consensus that non-whites are currently under-represented in the tourist sector and face significant obstacles to both finding jobs and getting promotions. Forty percent of respondents to a survey conducted by myself and Laurence Glasco in Havana and Santiago in 1994 agreed that blacks do not have the same opportunities as whites to get employment in this sector. The testimony of the manager of a tourism corporation--a white female, 45 years old--compiled by Rafael Duharte and Elsa Santos in a study about prejudice in Santiago de Cuba in 1994, is revealing: “Yes, it is true, there is a lot of racial prejudice in the tourist sector. I have worked there for about a year and I know that there is a lot of racism. In my corporation, for instance, out of 500 workers there are only five blacks... There is no explicit policy stating that one has to be white to work in tourism, but it is a rule that people must have a pleasant aspect, and blacks do not have it... In the fanciest store in the city¾La Maisson¾all workers are white and out of 14 models only one is mulatto. It is so rare to find black women in tourism that when there is one, people comment that she must be going to bed with an important boss. The few black men who work in tourism always perform harsh labor, such as truck drivers or lifting merchandise in the warehouses. They never work directly with the tourists, nor even in cleaning jobs, all of this personnel is white. I know a black woman that told me her experience when she tried to find work in tourism. She has a degree in economics, is a specialist in computing, and speaks English, French, and German. She went to the interview very well dressed, even though she herself confessed that everything was borrowed. Well, it was very unpleasant because in the end she was not accepted, but they did not give her a specific reason... the person who interviewed her did not know how to handle the situation because he could not tell her ‘we do not accept you because you’re black’... I think that her knowledge should have counted, after all some white women working in tourism are also ugly, even if they are whites. A few days ago a representative of a tourism corporation said publicly that he does not want blacks in his corporation because ‘el negro never finishes what he starts’.” As a black singer puts it, “tourist firms look like South African companies in times of Peter Botha. You go there and they are all white. And I wonder: where am I, in Holland?”

Although to get a job in such a competitive sector is certainly hard for everyone, some aesthetic and cultural factors are frequently claimed to justify the exclusion of blacks on the ground that they lack the physical and educational attributes needed to interact with tourists. These factors are usually condensed in the concept of “good presence,” a racialized construct which is based on the belief that blackness is ugly and that blacks--their formal schooling notwithstanding--lack proper manners and education in their social relationships. A black female librarian from Santiago told me the story of a friend who had been discriminated against while working in a tourist store: “I have a friend who finished, with very high grades, a course to work as a cashier in a tourist store. She is the darkest [la más prieta] of her group, has a good presence, is a young educated person, and... was denied the cashier position. All the cashiers are blond. After having a job designated for her in Havana, she has been transferred three times to different positions, so she is very upset and says that... if she denounces what has happened she might get fired.” “I do agree,” a white tourist guide concurred, “that there is an esthetic criteria in the selection of tourism personnel that favors whites. In my company, out of 60 workers there are three blacks.”

It is not only that blacks are facing obstacles to access these jobs, however. Given their representation in the sector through the 1980s, it must be inferred that at least some of these workers were displaced from their previous jobs and placed in less desirable occupations. There have been persistent rumors that hotel managers are giving preference to white workers and that “rationalization” programs (a term used to denote the downsizing of the labor force) have targeted blacks. In early 1994, for instance, the administration of the Habana Libre hotel (then renamed Habana-Guitar), fired dozens of workers to improve efficiency and the quality of service. It was rumored that blacks had been singled out in the lay-offs, and in a personal conversation a source close to the tourist industry confirmed such rumors. Thus, blacks have to cope not only with the racial prejudices of Cuban managers, but also with those imported by foreign investors and their managerial personnel. But they are in a weak position to combat such prejudices, given that these investors are a key element in Cuban developmental strategy. The government is interested in providing them with as friendly an environment as possible, including the strict control of labor unions and their bargaining capacity. Although investors' access to labor is supposed to take place through the mediation of an official organism they have, in Climent Guitar's words, “complete autonomy to select, hire, and, when necessary, fire the hotel's employees.” In fact, a significant proportion of those who enter these jobs are hired directly by the managers and foreign investors, further limiting the state’s capacity to guarantee a color-blind labor policy.

Two additional factors tend to further increase the racially-differentiated effects of the crisis and to fuel growing racial inequality under the special period. Because of blacks’ relative concentration in areas which are overcrowded and with a dilapidated housing stock, the opening of paladares (family-operated restaurants) is not an economic option for many black families. The other lucrative sector in which blacks are under-represented is the private agricultural sector. Since the early decades of the century, the black peasantry was displaced from land ownership, so Afro-Cuban rates of urbanization have been consistently higher than those of whites. According to the Agricultural Household Survey, conducted by a University of Havana research team in 1992 in a sample of rural communities across the island, whites represented 98 percent of private farmers and 95 percent of members in the agricultural cooperatives.

Most of these racially-differentiated effects are clearly unintended and escape government control. Government policies to cope with the crisis have provoked social polarization¾including a fast growing income gap¾but they are racial only in their consequences, not in their design. The dollarization of the economy, for instance, has multiplied income differences according to race, but the government has no control over the distribution of the dollar remittances that the overwhelmingly white Cuban-American community sends to their relatives in the island every year. Yet, this does not explain blacks’ underrepresentation in the tourist sector or in foreign corporations. As mentioned above, by the 1980s blacks had obtained levels of education comparable to those of whites and shared with them the benefits of expanded opportunities in white-collar employment. If anything, blacks’ slight overrepresentation in service jobs should have given them a competitive advantage in the expanding tourist economy. It is precisely because of these “structural” advantages that a racialized notion of suitability was constructed to define access to the most desirable sector of the Cuban economy. In other words, the underrepresentation of blacks in tourism cannot be explained as a function of structural conditions. It is, rather, a function of the pervasiveness of a racial ideology that portrays blacks as lazy, inefficient, dirty, ugly, and prone to criminal activities. In times of scarcity and growing competition for resources, this racist ideology justifies the exclusion of an important population sector from the benefits of the most attractive sector of Cuba’s economy. Hence the need to briefly examine the very existence and potential expansion of this ideology under the special period.

From prejudice to discrimination

Despite its anti-discriminatory position and egalitarian social policies, the revolutionary government failed to create the color-blind society it envisioned in the 1960s. The Cuban authorities believed that with the elimination of the “material bases” of capitalism and class-exploitation, the ideologies and mores from the past would automatically disappear. It would take time for racial stereotypes to wither away, but the “new man,” formed in the principles of communism, would not know racism. Consequently, the issue of race was silenced in public discourse since the 1960s; precedence was given to the imperative of unity in face of numerous internal and external threats. Race became a taboo in public discourse, its open discussion tantamount to an act of divisionism.

This official silence contributed to the survival, reproduction, and even creation of racist ideologies and stereotypes in a society which, particularly in the 1960s, was still far from being racially equal. What disappeared from public discourse found fertile breeding ground in private spaces, where race continued to influence social relations among friends, neighbors, co-workers, and family members. Supposedly harmless racist jokes reproduced in fact traditional images of blacks as criminals, dirty, lazy, and genetically inferior. Racial ideologies were reproduced within the family and enforced in multi-generational households. The research of anthropologist Nadine Fernández about the difficulties faced by interracial couples in Cuba convincingly demonstrates how traditional stereotypes have limited the choices of young couples.

Still, the extent to which these racial ideologies permeate Cuban society and the intensity of racial prejudice in popular consciousness is somehow surprising. Seventy-five percent of  respondents to the survey conducted in Havana and Santiago in 1994 by myself and Glasco agreed that prejudice is rampant in the island. The study conducted in Havana by the Centro de Antropología in 1995 found that 58 percent of whites considered blacks to be less intelligent, 69 percent claimed that they do not have the same “values” and “decency,” and 68 percent opposed interracial marriages. To put these figures in some perspective, in the United States the proportion of whites who declared that they were opposed to interracial marriages was actually lower in the early 1980s (40 percent), whereas those who believed blacks to be less intelligent amounted to only 23 percent (but this figure is severely dated, for the question has been dropped from the surveys of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago since 1968). Likewise, the proportion of whites who declared that they have no racial preferences concerning the racial composition of their neighborhood is lower in Havana (38 percent) than in the United States (42 percent). Similar data compiled by Daniela Hernández in Santa Clara provide a less critical picture (for instance, 96 percent of white subjects declared that blacks and whites are equally intelligent; 65 percent oppose interracial marriages), but these results corroborate what we have known all along: that racial prejudice was never obliterated in Cuba’s post-revolutionary society.

This ideology is frequently presented as a “left-over” or “remnant” from the past which is supposed to disappear in due time. In fact, it has found propitious conditions under the revolution to reproduce and, perhaps, even expand. The very success of the revolutionary government in creating equal opportunities in education, employment, and other social areas is now used to demonstrate blacks’ inescapable inferiority. A 40 year-old white male physician interviewed by Duharte and Santos explained: “I have a theory that could be considered fascist, but to me blacks are inferior to whites in regard to their intelligence coefficient. In support of this theory I contend that in Cuba, where for 35 years blacks have had the same opportunities to study, there is no evidence that they can equal whites. How not to think that genetic heredity affects them neurologically and makes them different, that is, inferior?” Another white male professional, 50 years old, concurred: “We took the chains off blacks and released them... Now, thirty five years later, they are worse off, less educated; instead of using the opportunity to improve themselves they continue to be marginals and criminals.”

The state-sponsored media have also contributed to the persistence of some of these racist images. Black actors are conspicuously absent from television and are frequently relegated to stereotypical roles. “When I worked in television,” a black female script writer asserts, “I told the national director once that blacks’ situation in TV was hopeless, because television does not reflect the reality of blacks. If the programs referred to the past, blacks appeared as maids or santeros, but it was not like that, there was a class of black professionals... The same today, with the black professionals created by the revolution. Blacks are always portrayed as marginals... I would write a script with a black character and they changed it and put in a white.” Likewise, whereas movies set in the past, particularly during times of slavery, have treated Afro-Cuban religions and culture as positive examples of popular resistance (La última cena [1976], for instance), those dealing with post-revolutionary realities (for an example, see De cierta manera [1974] and its characterization of ñáñigos) have portrayed the same practices as decadent forms of cultural expression that generate marginality and prevent integration into the socialist project.

This ideology was not created under the special period, but it has acquired visibility and growing social acceptability over the last few years. As an Afro-Cuban woman quoted in a The Miami Herald asserts, “something strange is happening during the special period. There is a revival of racism.” Indeed, despite its failure in eliminating racial prejudice, the impact of government propaganda, which claimed since the 1960s that all Cubans are equal and deserve full access to all sectors of national life, should not be underestimated. This campaign created an ideal of egalitarianism that was shared by vast sectors of the population. Its complexities and contradictions notwithstanding, the post-revolutionary social environment was decidedly anti-discriminatory. Public discourse equated racism with a past of capitalism and class exploitation--a trait of the antinational, pro-American, white elite which had been displaced from power. To be racist was to be counter-revolutionary. Real revolutionaries were not supposed to be racist--at least in public.

The association between revolution and racial fraternity/equality is a double-edge sword, however. It links the unacceptability of racism to the legitimacy, popularity, and support of the revolution--as represented by the government. But legitimacy, support, and popularity are, together with economic resources, what the government has lost the most in the 1990s. The erosion and deepening crisis of legitimacy of the current political system thus creates new spaces for racist ideas and practices to operate and flourish. What used to be a social and political anathema restricted to private spaces has become increasingly acceptable and public. These ideas, to use the graphic expression of one of my collaborators in the island, are not confined to “people’s heads” anymore. As the example of the tourist sector shows, they result in concrete practices which are discriminatory in nature. Diminishing government control over the hiring and promotion of personnel in the expanding private sector creates additional opportunities for these racially-discriminatory practices to operate unhindered.

Not surprisingly, blacks have actively resisted displacement from the most lucrative economic activities through participation in the informal--and frequently illegal--economy, from prostitution to trafficking in the black market, in order to access the indispensable hard currency. There is a widespread consensus that a large proportion of the so-called “jineteras” are black or mulatto. A source close to a study conducted among the jineteras by the National Committee of Communist Youth in 1994 confirms this impression. This is not surprising. Black participation in prostitution is explained not only by their disadvantageous position in the current situation, but also by the tourists’ own racialized notions of sexuality and pleasure. According to these notions, black sexuality is more appealing precisely because of the racial inferiority of black women and the unrestrained “primitiveness” of their sexual instincts, which makes them perfect sexual objects. Yet these very images, which associate blackness with unrestricted commercial sex, might construct as “black” women who would not be considered Afro-Cuban in other social relations. As Nadine Fernández points out in a recent paper about the subject, the depiction of certain activities as “sex tourism” is mediated by notions of race, class, and gender. In fact, a 1996 study by the Cuban section of FLACSO (Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales) claims that the majority of the jineteras are “mestizas” who would be considered white in other scenarios.

In any case, Cuban tourist agencies are profiting from these images of unrestricted tropical sexuality. They frequently advertise the island as a paradise of sexual indulgence and promiscuity. “Cuba: the fire and passion of deepest Caribbean flavor,” reads an advertisement of the Sol Palmeras hotel in Varadero. “To be isolated is not to be lonely. This island deserves love,” proclaims Cubatur. As Julia O’Connell Davidson, a sociologist at the University of Leicester who has conducted field research on the subject of sex tourism in the island argues, for racially-conscious white male tourists Cuba is paradise “in the sense that there, rather than being challenged, their racism is both implicitly and explicitly affirmed. They meet large numbers of Black women who really are sexually available, and, even more delightful for the white racist, people tell him that these Black women are sexually available because they are so ‘caliente’.” The very existence of these dark jineteras is then used to confirm the alleged moral deficiencies of black and mulatto women, further racializing the crisis that affects Cuban society.

Other strategies of adaptation and resistance get equally racialized. For instance, the migration of people from the eastern provinces to Havana has been frequently interpreted as a black assault on the city. “These negros orientales [blacks from Oriente] are taking over,” a white male professional explained, referring to the “palestinos” (Palestinians), as these dark immigrants are known in Havana. In fact, internal migrations are a function of the uneven development of the dollar economy in different regions of the country. The regional distribution of dollar stores can be used as a rough indicator of this phenomenon. Up to 1994, dollar stores were concentrated in tourist areas: it was illegal for Cuban nationals to access them. With the legalization of dollars, stores and services that operate in hard currency have been created also in non-tourism areas, following the availability of dollars in the general population. In early 1996, 40 percent of all these stores were located in Havana. Conversely, the eastern provinces of Granma, Santiago de Cuba, and Guantanamo had only 10 percent of the total. Not surprisingly, the bulk of immigrants came from these disadvantaged areas--a process that mirrors migration flows in pre-revolutionary Cuba. It is estimated that 50,000 people moved to Havana in 1996 alone and in the first semester of 1997 92,000 people tried to legalize their status in the city. The government reacted by banning all immigration to Havana in the spring of 1997, imposing fines on both the immigrants and house owners, and requiring immediate return to the place of origin. An official in the Foreign Ministry’s U.S. Department explained: “We had people living in subhuman conditions in Havana, without work. We went to these people and said, for example, ‘Señor, you’re from Guantanamo. You have left a house and job in Guantanamo. You need to continue your life in Guantanamo. You can’t live in subhuman conditions here in a house built of trash’.” Whether massive deportations have taken place as a result of the law remains open to further verification. Officials claim that “no one has been put on a bus and sent back,” but other sources assert that hundreds, even thousands of people have been forced to leave the city and that the deportation order has been violently enforced.

The presence of these dark immigrants in Havana was linked to an increment of violence and petty crimes--this increment is recognized even by official sources--which has been also explained in racial terms. “Look, we all have problems,” another white male professional states while talking about the immigrants, “but whereas I try to solve them through work or other legitimate ways, what blacks do is resort to robbery.” According to a white female professional, this vision was shared even by government authorities: “A lot of stealing was going on and they were accused. Fidel offended them by saying something to the effect of ‘Old Havana is full of Eastern delinquents’.” This is the great tragedy of racism: it is a self fulfilling prophecy. Blacks are denied opportunities on the ground that they are unfit and inferior, yet their strategies for adaptation and survival are not perceived as ways of coping with an adverse situation, but as further prove of their inferiority, laziness, lack of morality, and propensity to commit criminal acts. The whole crisis and its many social ills become, as a result, racialized.

Fidel's "secret weapon"?

The revival of racism and racially discriminatory practices under the special period have led to growing resentment and resistance in the black population, which suddenly finds itself in a hostile environment without the political and organizational resources needed to fight against it. In this context, events such as the Malecón “riot” of August 5, 1994 begin to make sense. These spontaneous outbursts of rage and anger are typical of politically-disorganized groups who perceive their situation as hopeless. Symptomatically, participants in this street protest stoned dollar stores while calling for “freedom” and political changes. As I have argued elsewhere, the surprise of the Cuban government concerning the racial composition of the rioters--according to an official report leaked to the press, blacks and mulattos were in the majority--is more a function of its own prejudice and expectations than of any concrete sociological reality. The government expects young blacks to behave as passive “beneficiaries” of revolutionary gains, not as active protagonists for their own well being and future.   Perhaps because of these expectations, the reaction of the Cuban government to this process of racial polarization has been slow and inadequate. Given the lack of official action, it is even questionable whether in official circles there is awareness about the existence of a problem at all. The program of the Fifth Congress of the Communist Party (PCC) contained an element of hope: while claiming that the revolution “eliminated the institutional bases of racism” and worked to incorporate all Cubans, regardless of race, into the country’s life, it called for maintaining “the just policy” of increasing black representation in positions of command. Even if fully implemented, the impact of this policy would have been limited: positions within the government bureaucracy are not, for the most part, as desirable as they were in the past and they certainly do not provide material benefits comparable to those in the dollarized sector. Yet, a visible increase of blacks in the power-structure would have sent an unequivocal message to managers in the private sector that the government opposes racial exclusion and that racially-discriminatory practices would not be tolerated. Instead, the last Congress of the Party elected a Political Bureau in which non-whites represent only 21 percent of the total (this is an improvement compared to 1991, when it was 16 percent). Their proportion in the Central Committee is even lower: it amounts to only 12 percent. The upper echelons of the Party are actually whiter today (87 percent, including Central Committee and Political Bureau), than in 1991 (84 percent) or 1986 (72 percent). The proportion of blacks and mulattos among the candidates to the National Assembly of Poder Popular in the 1997 elections was higher than in the PCC (about 21 percent), but still considerably low considering their share in the total population. Furthermore, this figure does not show a significant improvement over the racial composition of the candidates in the elections of 1993 (it was then 19 percent).

How it is possible, in an environment like this, to claim that blacks represent a source of support for the Cuban government almost defies comprehension. It is argued that blacks are terrified with the potential return of the white exiles, but the limited available evidence does not support this assertion. Even if we accept the notion that the Cuban-American community is racist--a proposition that would not be terribly difficult to prove--it does not follow that blacks in the island fully endorse this vision or, more to the point, that they are politically paralyzed as a result. Perceptions about the Cuban-American community are in fact less negative than the government might wish. The government itself has contributed to this process by softening its rhetoric about the exiles, by presenting them as economic emigrants, and by welcoming their dollars. The 1994 CID-Gallup survey found that 75 percent of respondents referred to Cuban-Americans in affectionate terms. Only 27 percent of whites and 33 percent of blacks responding to the survey on racial attitudes conducted in Havana and Santiago the same year agreed with the proposition that the Miami exiles are racist. Thirty-nine percent of black respondents believed that, upon their return, the white exiles would bring racism back into the island, but this proposition was supported mainly by older (40 years old and over) blacks (51 percent). Only 18 percent of younger respondents agreed with the statement.

In fact, one of the conclusions from this survey was that generational differences were more important in determining perceptions about the revolution, its achievements, shortcomings, and the impact of the special period, than racial ones. This result was coincident with the findings of the CID-Gallup survey, which found younger Cubans to be less satisfied with their personal life within the island. This is true for both blacks and whites. The current crisis has eroded some of the emblematic achievements of the Cuban revolution to such a degree that young blacks no longer perceive the restoration of capitalism as a major reverse. The incapacity of the Cuban government to maintain its previous levels of social assistance, the deterioration of those that still subsist, and the introduction of limited market reforms with their legacy of increasing inequality and social polarization, are all factors that have contributed to undermining the legitimacy of the political order.

The very racialization of the crisis might lead, however, to racially-defined forms of organization and resistance, further fueling racial tensions in the island. It is perhaps worth mentioning that although the vast majority of respondents to the 1994 survey on racial attitudes opposed the formation of an all-black organization, 16 percent of the younger black respondents considered this type of organization to be a necessity. Racial exclusion breeds racially-defined social responses. Unless some of the existing institutions (such as the courts) or organizations (such as the unions or the PCC) effectively represent Afro-Cuban concerns and take on the struggle for racial equality, the creation of a racially-defined organization might be increasingly perceived as the only way to counteract discrimination in the labor market and other areas of social life.


The available evidence suggests that race relations have deteriorated in Cuba under the special period. Not only has racial inequality increased along with other forms of social inequality, but racist ideologies and prejudices seem to be operating with greater freedom than before the crisis started. Declining government control over the economy and lack of government action to enforce color-blind hiring and promotion practices have opened new spaces--and expanded old ones--for racist ideas to result in discriminatory practices. The case of the tourist industry is a prime example of this process. In this sense, one could argue that race is indeed “at the heart” of the Cuban crisis.   It is more difficult to agree with the belief that Afro-Cubans represent a source of support for the current government. This assertion might be as inaccurate as its opposite--that whites oppose the government en masse. The limited evidence available suggests that it is more accurate to analyze “support” in generational, rather than racial lines. Older Cubans, regardless of race, are more concerned about a political change that might destroy what is left of the safety net created by the government to protect the elderly. This concern is less relevant for younger Cubans, who are also, as a rule, better educated than previous generations. Furthermore, the belief that blacks are Fidel Castro’s “secret weapon” rests on the assumption that they fear the return of discrimination and racism to the island in a post-Communist future. In fact, there is convincing evidence that race discrimination is a reality that blacks already face in Cuba. In summary, Afro-Cubans should not be automatically seen as uncritical supporters of the government.

However, the assertion that blacks are loyal supporters of the government is not surprising--and not only because of the mobility experienced by Afro-Cubans after 1959. Linking blacks to crumbling political regimes seems to be a regularity in Cuba’s post-colonial history. In previous moments of transition, blacks have been always portrayed as supporters of governments whose falling is perceived as imminent. This happened under the dictatorial regimes of both Gerardo Machado (1925-1933) and Fulgencio Batista (1952-1959). The statement that “los negros” are Fidel Castro’s “secret weapon” is essentially identical to Machado’s belief that he would stay in power with “his army and his negros,” or to Batista’s vision that blacks should expect nothing from the white revolutionaries of the M-26-7.

From a historical perspective, the racialization of the special period is hardly special. Race has been central to every major crisis in Cuba’s modern history, and constructs similar to those currently used have emerged before. The 1990s crisis is just another instance in the long and contradictory process of defining how racially inclusive the Cuban nation should be. Race remains central to the definition of Cuban nationhood--it is not possible to define a new Cuba without addressing the issue of race. That another “new” Cuba is about to be born is beyond dispute--it is already in the making. What this will mean for Cubans of different “races” is uncertain. As in previous transitions--late 1890s, 1930s, 1959--the current crisis is fraught with racial tensions, social dislocation and competing notions of what la Patria should be.

As in previous transitions, blacks will not quietly acquiesce to displacement or exclusion from a nation that they helped create. It is interesting that some of the concerns voiced about the role of blacks in the current transition are essentially identical to those of the previous fin de siècle transition. In their introduction to the anthology Afrocuba, Pedro Pérez Sarduy and Jean Stubbs wrote that “no matter what happens... black Cubans are a force to be reckoned with.” In 1899, an American observer of the Cuban situation stated in an almost identical language: “The existence of blacks must be reckoned with in every phase of the reconstruction of the island.” Times might be different, but our concerns remain the same.

*A previous version of this paper was published by Georgetown University, The Cuba Briefing Series, 18 (July, 1998).  Sources and further readings are given in the author’s forthcoming book,A Nation for All: Race, Nationality, and Politics in Twentieth Century Cuba (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).